The Poisoned Water Crisis in Flint (America Divided, Episode 1)

I watched the first episode of the EPIX documentary series: America Divided, and this is the second in a series of comments that I hope to write on the issues explored in the series. Stay tuned…

“We just have to do what we have to do…”

A father of two shares this sentiment as he works with his sons to set up the apparatus that they are using to takes showers, a 5 gallon water cooler bottle with a hand pump that creates enough pressure to push the water through a hand held shower-head. “It’s probably the worst thing about the water crisis,” one of the young son shares, “I’m gonna be about (pauses to do the addition) 27 by the time they fix it.”

The proximal causes of the Flint water crisis are fairly well known now, a switch by the emergency manager from the Detroit water system to a local system that drew water from the Flint river. Emergency managers are appointed by state governments when a city is drowning in debt, and they are given extraordinary power to cut government services, primarily to ensure that debt payments are made to private lenders.

What American Divide interviewer Rosario Dawson seems to be interested in (at least for this episode) is the more micro-level view of what happens when an entire city’s water poisoned. “If a neighbor poisoned and killed his wife, he’d be in prison.” The mother of the two boys mentioned above has a point, “…and we have an entire city that’s been poisoned”

Is there a human need more fundamental than water?

The family relates the story of when they first thought something might be wrong with the water: “Ken was walking with the boys, and all the hydrants were running, but the water was brown coming out, so he knew something was wrong.” That’s when they stopped drinking the water. They noticed that the water bowl of the family dog kept “turning into Jell-o” (a horrifying image) every hour or two, and soon the dog began to “go mad.”

When the veterinarian ran a blood test, the levels of lead were extremely high. (“Level 32” as the mother recalls. The way this is measured in the US is BLL, Blood Lead Level, and 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood is the safe limit. The dog’s blood tested at over 6 times the safe level in humans…)

Unfortunately, the dog wasn’t the only one affected. The mother in this story recounts through tears that one of their children has only attended 44 days of school because of illness (out the Michigan mandated 175 days of instruction each child should receive). The older son has been fighting a bacterial infection received from Flint’s drinking water for the past two years.

Dr. Laura Sullivan, a professor at Kettering University, explains that as water travels through lead pipes (no one knows how many lead pipes exist in every American city), they can be corroded if the wrong chemicals end up in the water. A relatively straight forward solution to the problem is the addition of phosphates to the water, the phosphates react to the lead in a way that forms a protective coating on the inside of any lead pipes. In order to add that phosphate in Flint, however, equipment that would be needed to add the phosphates to the water were never purchased.

Dr. Sullivan recounts, visibly frustrated, the way that a high ranking official rolled their eyes about having to send another notice out to Flint residents, and that there would be another round of rashes.

That moment betrays the truth about individual actors in a fundamentally unjust system. The ambivalent attitude of some public servants can absolutely be pointed to as a part of the larger problem, but that ambivalence is only the tip of the iceberg — it is the larger system that dissociates high ranking officials from the communities they serve, that allows a Commissioner of Water to be so distanced from both the people he is set up to serve and the people with the power to do anything about an emerging crisis. So distant from the people with and without power is the typical civil servant, that the only reasonable reaction is a stoic resolve and the emotional detachment necessary not to burnout completely. “We’re doing everything we can.”

This reality is not lost on Dawson, who comments on the “us-vs-them” dynamic that fails to produce solutions that a “we” dynamic could easily produce. Revealing the ways that activists and self-motivated investigators of these social ills are left wondering, Dr. Sullivan begins to tearfully motion like she wants either to choke an imaginary neck, or perhaps shake an imaginary shoulder: “I still kick myself for not saying ‘Listen to me, this is not possible.’”

Almost as soon as the water was switched to the Flint River, the General Motors engine plant in Flint stopped using the water, and bought water instead from nearby Flint Township. The people of Flint were not so lucky, and would not even find out about the problems with the water for another year because of the inaction and indifference of the state and local governments. (“we’re doing everything we can”)

Pediatricians and other medical professionals scrambled for months to understand what was happening, with some studies showing a doubling of BLL compared to results from the previous year, but were told that their data and their analysis were incorrect by government officials (“we’re doing everything we can”). A year and a half after Flint switched their water supply in April 2014, the doctors threatened to release, and then did release their findings. The City would wait another few months before declaring a formal state of emergency.

Switching back to Detroit’s water system was approved by the City Council, which Dawson finds out from a longstanding city council member. The plan, however, was rejected as too costly by the Emergency Manager. The Emergency Manager also ordered a city councilor not to speak publicly about these issues, to restrict an elected officials ability to speak on behalf of their constituents. The specifics of how and why are yet to de explored by the series, we’ll see what comes to light in Episode 2 I think…